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  • Chris O'Rourke


Sarah Richmond (Argene) centre with Seán Boylan (Alcandro), Chuma Sijeqa (Clistene), Alexandra Urquiola (Aristea), Rachel

Redmond (Aminta), Meili Li (Licida) & Gemma Ní Bhriain (Megacle) in Irish National Opera's L'Olimpiade.

Image, Ros Kavanagh.


Vivaldi’s importance to opera is not always recognised given his most significant contributions occurred during his lifetime. Yet his drama per musica (music written for a libretto) from 1734, L’Olimpade, has enjoyed much attention in recent decades. The libretto by Pietro Metastasis, adapted by Bartelemeo Vitturi, once inspiring several operas by other composers. Set in ancient Greece during the Olympic games this rollicking romp sees love, loss and misunderstandings serve up more reversals than a Ferrari forecourt. Its tale of two bungling suitors, the foolish Megacle (mezzo-soprano Gemma Ní Bhriain in trouser role) and the fickle Licida (counter tenor Melli Li) sees complications pile up. Both men recipients of the unwarranted devotion of the abandoned Argene (mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond), and soon to be abandoned Aristea (mezzo-soprano Alexandria Urquiola). Throw in an infanticidal King Clistene (baritone Chuma Sijeqa), a conscientious confidant Alacandro (baritone Sèan Boylan), and a tutor, Aminta, (soprano Rachel Redmond) with a life and death secret and complications soon attain Shakespearean levels of absurdity. But why stop there? Swapping identities then competing to win the princess’s hand in marriage, attempted regicide, and a rather significant necklace all allow for endless comic and romantic interplay. Reflected in Vivaldi’s galloping and emotional score given vivid life by the award winning, Irish Baroque Orchestra under Peter Whelan. Juxtaposed uneasily with Daisy Evans’s direction which locks L’Olimpade inside the vice like grip of a playfully lightweight design.

Rachel Redmond (Aminta) centre, Gemma Ní Bhriain (Megacle), Chuma Sijeqa (Clistene), Sarah Richmond (Argene), Alexandra Urquiola (Aristea),Seán Boylan (Alcandro), and Meili Li (Licida) Irish National Opera's L'Olimpiade. Image, Ros Kavanagh

In fairness, L’Olimpade presents several staging challenges, being less a flowing story so much as a series of da capo arias. Like an operatic Top 20 chart, its songs might allow for spirited and sensual solos, but they risk the opera being reduced to these signature identities rather than their shared relationship. A problem never quite resolved by Evans emphasising Greek theatre in honour of the opera’s setting. Leaving L’Olimpade bearing a close resemblance to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Cast sat either side at the wings next to costume rails looking like extras in a student production rather than a Greek chorus. Similarly problematic is honouring the 1730s via Baroque era costumes. Molly O’Cathain’s interchangeable attire frequently suggesting Morris dancers dressed for cricket in a Gilbert and Sullivan recital. If O’Cathain’s shifting set evokes the Olympic circles and a Greek amphitheatre, gorgeously illuminated by Jake Wilshire, its functionality proves a victory. But it’s not enough to visually compensate. Leaving action and staging resembling a rehearsal or an acting class. The frame highlighting sung moments, but ultimately distracting from the experience.

Sarah Richmond (Argene) and Alexandra Urquiola (Aristea) Irish National Opera's L'Olimpiade. Image, Ros Kavanagh

Following a promising opening, spectacle quickly wanes post-overture and returns infrequently. Leaving singing and music working against the visual grain to convey L’Olimpade’s dramatic intent. L’Olimpade’s superlative ensemble infusing warmth, pain and playfulness into each note, with Richmond, Li, Redmond and Ní Bhriain marrying delicacy with power. An ambidextrous, multi-tasking Peter Whelan, mastering harpsichord and baton simultaneously, provides the nucleus around which all coheres. Whelan showing consummate professionalism when, unbelievably, a phone went off and the - select your own superlative - undaunted individual battered their way through a row then raced up the aisle to go outside and take their call. Meanwhile their 80s anthem ring tone got progressively louder. Whelan slowed proceedings to a halt in a manner that felt like a breath till silence was restored and music resumed following this unwanted, unwelcome and wholly avoidable intrusion. Irish Baroque Orchestra producing some of their finest playing, capturing the velocity, vivacity and tenderness of Vivaldi's music. Indeed, though you’re keen to see how everything ends, you never want the music, or singing, to stop.

Peter Whelan conducts Irish Baroque Orchestra in Irish National Opera's L'Olimpiade. Image, Ros Kavanagh

If its minimalist, meta-theatrical framing sidesteps rather than negotiates L’Olimpade’s staging challenges, music and singing evidence why this is an opera worthy of any repertoire. Touring Ireland, the UK and Switzerland, Irish National Opera’s co-production of L’Olimpade with Royal Opera House and Nouvel Opéra Fribourg, in partnership with Irish Baroque Orchestra, has much to commend it. Not least, some exceptional singing and playing.

L’Olimpiade by Vivaldi, an Irish National Opera co-production with Royal Opera House, London, and Nouvel Opéra Fribourg, is currently on tour.

For more information visit Irish National Opera

Review of the performance in Siamsa Tíre, Tralee on April 20, 2024.


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